Chapter 6
A Matter of Honor

Eagle, Gladius; Gladian Year 590

"My hand is hesitant to admit the truth even to this, my own journal, for fear of what damage I may do to posterity. Liria and I surrendered ourselves to the flames of passion and now I must reap the whirlwind. I may still be young, but I know the political answer to the problem. We do love each other, after all. Everything will work out in the end..."
- Excerpt from the journal of Julian, son of Sebastian

Another long year had passed where Luther and Julian's efforts to end the feud were plagued by Percival's unflagging zeal to keep the fires burning. However, whenever Percival plotted an ambush of members of the Aran household, Julian would always send word to Luther in advance and so the number of attacks dropped markedly. Fewer attacks meant less blood spilled, less conflict to leave the townspeople on edge. It was not quite peace, but it was progress.
Luther and Julian did not see each other as much anymore. With his father's death, Julian's training was intensified as he was groomed to undergo the Rite of Succession early, even though Percival had an interest in remaining head of the household. That was not all of it, though. He was spending a lot of time with that girl, that daughter of the vice magistrate. It was making him lose his edge. In the rare chance they got to spar with each other, Luther saw him become more and more distracted.
As they faced off for the first time in weeks, Julian was at his worst and it was painfully obvious. Armed with a pair of handaxes, Luther should have been at a disadvantage against the spear-wielding Julian. However, he easily went past his partner's defenses and had to stop his swing short with the edge scarcely an inch from Julian's neck. Julian hardly even realized what had happened when Luther threw down the handaxes in frustration. He started to walk away, but turned back to Julian.
"What's wrong?" Luther asked. "If this was for real, you'd already be dead. This isn't like you at all."
Julian allowed the spear to fall from his hands and shook his head as it rattled on the ground.
"I'm sorry..." he said. "You're right... I'm not myself... Luther, you're my friend and I know I can confide in you." He took a moment to read Luther's eyes, ensuring his faith was well-placed. "I'm in love Liria. I fell for her the moment we met and these feelings I have for her won't go away. I'm sure that she is the woman meant for me, but I'm afraid I may have gone too far... She says she's with child and I don't know what to do. The only way to save her honor is to marry her, but I fear I'm not ready..."
"How does she know?" Luther asked. She did not look any different since the last time he saw her, after all.
"Women can tell these things long before men can," Julian replied. "What do you think I should do?"
"You said you loved her, right? Isn't that enough?"
Julian chuckled softly.
"Isn't that rationale a little childish? Men of our rank don't marry for love. We marry for advantage."
Luther took some offense at the remark. He hated to be treated like a child, and he was not that much younger than Julian anyway. Still, he did not dwell on it long and thought of a way to encourage his friend.
"You certainly have plenty to offer her," he said. "After all, you'll be one of the Twelve Stewards soon. As for her, she may just be gentry, but her father's the vice magistrate of the mines. Your grandfather's bound to approve. He'll think he can undermine my family's operations."
"You have a point," Julian said as he stroked his chin in contemplation. "I would never have expected you of all people to be so politically shrewd, but you're right on all accounts. If I marry her, I can succeed Grandfather at eighteen instead of twenty. It will bring the feud to an end all the sooner. Perhaps my indiscretion will ultimately turn out for the best. " He held Luther by the shoulders and shook him lightly. "Thank you, Luther. I knew I could count on you. When the time for the wedding comes, I want you to be my best man. I can't think of anyone else for the job."
"Are you sure?" Luther asked. "I can't imagine your grandfather being too happy seeing me at the wedding."
"Let him rage," Julian replied. "It will be a fitting prelude to me ending the feud. I want you there by my side."
"Alright then," Luther said with a smile. "I'll be there. Now go take care of this mess. My skills'll go dull if you don't sort things out and start sparring for real again soon."
Julian gave a soft chuckle that quickly segued into a hearty laughter that Luther joined in. As the laughter died away, Julian picked up the spear he dropped and walked away. Luther watched him as he left, hoping things would indeed work out in the end.

* * *

Julian stood at the doorstep of the vice magistrate's house, dressed in some of his finest clothes. (His absolute finest were being saved for the wedding day he hoped to secure.) He brought no servants with him in an effort to present himself as earnest and unpretentious, but maybe a display of his family's power would make the stronger impression. It was too late to worry about that now, though.
After knocking, a servant opened the door, taking a moment to size up the unexpected visitor.
"What brings you here today, young master?"
"I must speak with the man of the house," Julian said with as much confidence as he could muster. "Tell him that it is Julian of House Leon."
The servant gave a slight bow and guided Julian into the waiting room.
"I will see if the master is available. Please wait here, sir."
As the moments passed, Julian maintained his patience and practiced the words he would use in his head. He was on the third repetition when the servant returned.
"The master will see you now, sir. This way."
Julian followed the servant into a room designed for receiving guests. The vice magistrate, Erasmus, was already waiting for him. He was obviously a man who paid meticulous attention to appearances, for he made both his house and himself reflect a much higher rank than the one he held.
Another servant came in the room to serve tea. Julian accepted the offer and waited for Erasmus to drink first. Taking a sip from his own cup, Julian could hardly avoid cringing from the potent, bitter drink. Erasmus closed his eyes and relaxed in his chair, giving the semblance of perfect composure.
"To what do I owe this honor?" he asked in a matter-of-fact tone.
Trying not to stumble on his words, Julian replied, "My reason for coming here is your eldest daughter, Liria. She is a fine woman and I would like to have her hand in marriage. I seek your blessing as her father."
Erasmus opened his eyes and stared at Julian for a moment. He took a sip of his tea.
"Exactly how old are you?"
"Sixteen, sir."
"Hmph," Erasmus snorted. "You have a few years yet before you can be called a man. Why are you in such a hurry to get married?"
Julian knew better than to tell the whole truth. A partial truth is better than a total lie, he assured himself.
"It is a matter of great importance for my House," he said. "Besides, your family has much to gain from this union, perhaps even the elevation to the peerage. And though it may not mean anything to you, I do sincerely love your daughter and she has returned that love. I want to know that we have your approval."
"You realize," Erasmus said, "that as vice magistrate of the mines, I am aligned with House Aran."
"I do."
"By giving one of my daughters to House Leon, I could be putting myself in a compromising situation."
Julian swallowed hard. "You might."
"But perhaps House Leon would be willing to take steps to ensure my security."
"Perhaps."
Just when Julian thought he could not make another step of this verbal dance, Erasmus went quiet, sipping his tea for a matter of tense moments that felt like hours. Julian struggled to hide his anxiety. Did the father know of his daughter's pregnancy? Had he deduced that Julian was responsible? The potential catastrophe loomed ominously over Julian's nervous thoughts. He was fast approaching his breaking point when Erasmus finally spoke.
"I had wanted Liria to wed Lord Tiberius of House Aran," he said, "but he seems to have no interest in taking a wife at the moment. She is still in the bloom of her youth and I cannot tarry much longer." He paused again, nearly driving Julian mad with anticipation. "I give you my blessing, Master Julian. May this new alliance prove to be a fruitful one."
"Thank you, thank you!" Julian exclaimed, rising from his seat and vigorously shaking the startled vice magistrate's hand.
When Julian left Erasmus' house, a great burden was lifted from his heart. The marriage held the potential to solve all of his problems. It was almost too good to be true.

* * *

It took nearly a month to complete the preparations for the wedding. All noble families throughout Gladius were invited as well as a large number of the gentry. Of the many invitees, few failed to attend.
The ceremony was held in the garden of the Leon family manor, filled to the brim with people. Abbot Septimus of the Vera Cruz Monastery decided to personally preside over the ceremony rather than deferring the task to a subordinate priest. The guest of honor was none other than King Edgar himself making a rare appearance outside Greystone. As people were taking their designated positions, Luther's presence did not go unnoticed by the Leon patriarch.
"You're one of those Aran dogs, aren't you!?" Percival blustered. "What the hell are you doing here? Scum like you isn't welcome here! Someone, remove this wretch!"
Percival's shouting caused a nervous hush to come over the guests. A handful of men-at-arms came forward at their master's order, but the King himself motioned for them to hold. They did not dare defy the King and stopped then and there. The interference incensed Percival further, but in a stark contrast with his red-faced accuser, Luther remained calm.
"I'm not here as a member of House Aran today, Lord Percival," he said, "but as a friend of Julian. Why don't you take a seat, sir? This is Julian's day and I'm sure you don't want to ruin it. Besides, you'll just embarrass yourself in front of all these esteemed guests."
Luther's casual confidence only caused Percival's anger to burn hotter. However, he was unarmed and unable to act on his rage. All he could do was turn away from Luther in frustration, refusing to look in his direction. As Luther was walking to his place, he heard an impertinent voice behind him.
"You better not start any fights! I won't let you ruin my sister's wedding day."
Luther turned to see Liria's younger sister glaring at him with a defiance unfitting such a young girl.
"Oh? I see you haven't changed. You're still an annoying little brat. Keep it up and you'll never catch a husband when you grow up."
"You want to fight!?" she snapped, holding up her small fist to challenge him.
"That is no way for a lady to act," a voice intervened.
It was a girl about Nyssa's age, but she spoke with an adult's maturity. Her manner and her fine clothes indicated that she was well-bred, of patrician stock. She placed her hands on Nyssa's shoulders.
"You are about to become a member of the nobility, young lady," she said, "and you must act accordingly." She then turned to Luther and said, "You also must learn to act appropriately, Master Luther. House Aran may be a warrior family, but it is no excuse to act like a barbarian."
"Aren't you a little young to be giving advice?" Luther asked with no small amount of perplexity at the unusual child.
The girl held her hand to her chest in affected offense.
"You wound me, nephew. Do you not recognize me?"
Both Luther and Nyssa looked at her in equal confusion. The girl smiled.
"You do not visit often enough. Your mother would surely appreciate it if you came to Corinth once in a while."
It came to him at last.
"Sapphira?"
Flavia Sapphira, the youngest Lord Flavius' ten children. She was the sister of Luther's mother, though it never felt right calling a girl younger than him 'Aunt'.
"So you remember after all," she replied with another smile. "Still, it has been too long. Can we expect you to visit in the near future?"
Luther looked away.
"Maybe..."
His young aunt was unfazed by the coolness of his reply and gave a slight curtsey.
"Your mother and I will be looking forward to it. If you will excuse me..."
Luther had a natural distrust of the patricians rooted in their history of tyranny and corruption and his family's long struggle against them, particularly during the Unification. On top of that, the subject of his mother did not stir the warmest feelings in his heart. After his father died, she abandoned him and Tiberius to return to her father's house in Corinth. He had not seen her in four years and had little intention of changing that.
Seeing the change in Luther, Nyssa quietly gave up her argument with him and returned to her place with the bridesmaids.
There was a call for everyone to take their places and once they were all in position, the ceremony began. Julian was the first to approach the Abbot. He wore the gear of the Defender for the occasion, but Luther could tell from the shine of the Gems that they were not quite ready to accept him yet. Before they could go forward with their plan to end the feud, Julian would have to complete his succession. Luther's attention was soon drawn away from such thoughts by the arrival of the bride.
She was escorted by her father, who handed her over to Julian when they reached the Abbot and then took his place next to Luther. As then Abbot read the nuptial liturgy, Luther's mind started to wander again. The Abbot's dull voice hardly inspired attentiveness. He did not understand how the Wayfarers could put up with such boring oratory on a regular basis. The last time he saw the inside of a chapel was his father's funeral.
While Julian and Liria were exchanging their vows, Luther saw something out of the corner of his eye, something in the bough of a tree shading the King. A glint of sunlight off of something metal instantly alerted him to the danger.
He ran at a full sprint toward the King, not even thinking to call out a warning. The person in the tree sprang from his perch, holding his knife high in the air.
"Sic semper tyrannis!" he shrieked.
Pushing through the guests, Luther drew the ceremonial sword at his waist and leapt toward the attacker, putting all his momentum in a headlong thrust. The attacker was wearing some sort of armor under his clothes, though, for the decorative blade shattered. Even so, the blow still had enough force to knock the attacker into a nearby courtier.
The attacker scrambled to his feet, brandishing his knife at Luther. Dodging easily, Luther swung at the attacker, driving the broken sword into the man's neck. The wound was mortal and the attacker clutched at the wound as blood spurted out between his fingers. He stumbled, falling on his back, and slowly died.
The guests were wrapped in an awkward silence. The King's bodyguards encircled their liege with weapons drawn, but there were no other attackers to be seen. One it was clear that the threat had passed, King Edgar, an imposing figure who towered over all others, addressed the audience in a loud, authoritative voice.
"Pay this incident no heed, my good people. Eyes and ears, return to the ceremony." To the Abbot, he said in a slightly gentler tone, "Please continue, Father Abbot."
Somewhat haltingly, the Abbot finished the ceremony, though Luther's attention was on the dead man the entire time.
Once the bride and groom had left, as the guests filed out of the garden, the King took a moment to speak with Luther. He rested his heavy hand on the youth's shoulder.
"Luther of House Aran, am I right? You have my thanks. My bodyguards were obviously derelict in their duties, no doubt taken with the beauty of the bride. It is fortunate that you came along when you did. My grandfather chose wisely when he counted Lord Adelar among his vassals. I hope to see you do more great things for this kingdom, young Master Luther."
"I was only doing my duty, Your Majesty," Luther replied with a bow.
The King laughed and motioned for his entourage to join him in exiting the garden.
The King's words were encouraging, but Luther could not help feeling ill at ease. He did not think the attacker acted on his own. Someone gave the order and this was not likely the end of the plot.
As Luther was leaving the garden, a servant hurried up to him and gave him a sealed letter. He opened it and read as he walked. Julian wanted to talk with him about the incident that night. Maybe he knew something. Luther would be certain to find out.

* * *

Luther arrived early at the meeting place. He did not have to wait long for Julian. Despite the gravity of their situation, Luther could not help ribbing his friend.
"Don't you have better things to do on your wedding night than sneaking out to be with me?"
Julian managed a weak grin, but it quickly faded.
"Liria was mortified at what happened today. I can't say I feel much differently, but not for the same reasons."
"The assassin was wearing the colors of House Aran," Luther said, "but he wasn't one of our men. It's a good thing the King only took the attack at face value or it could've been a disaster."
Julian nodded.
"I saw the body before it was removed. He was one of House Leon's men, a newer one, hired only a couple months ago. I had only seen him once or twice before. It was no doubt a plot by my grandfather. I can't believe he would go this far, though. To make an attempt on the life of the King... If you hadn't been there..."
Luther dismissed the possibility with a wave of his hand.
"We have to be more careful is all. If only we could stop that grandfather of yours. Maybe if we bore witness against him..."
"No," Julian said hastily. "I mean, it would be our word against his. Even if you did just save the King's life, I don't think he would pick us over someone who has served Gladius for so many years. Besides, this is a family matter. If possible, I would like to keep it in the family."
"But we're talking treason here."
"I know, but, please, leave this to me."
Luther had his misgivings, but finally dropped the issue.
"I guess I don't have much choice. It's not like I can make the charges own. It's still going to be another two years before you can perform the Rite of Succession. What are we supposed to do until then?"
"The King rarely leaves Greystone, so I believe he's safe. Besides, Grandfather is not after the King. It is you and the rest of your family he wants. Now that he's gotten a taste for disguising fighters as men of Aran, I fear he may try to attack you or your brother directly. I'll tell you of any plans I hear, of course, but I think he's on to me. At least he seems to know someone is leaking his plots. He's become more and more secretive lately. Then there's the matter of loyalty. Even if I succeed him, I don't know if I can take the men of the household out of his control."
"We'll take things one step at a time," Luther reassured him. "For now, try to pay a little attention to your new wife."
Julian smiled.
"I don't see how anyone can be so devil-may-care. Be careful, Luther."
"You too. You've got a family to look out for now."
With that they parted and went their separate ways. Luther's words belied how worried he was. Percival kept on raising the stakes. It was madness. Luther knew that more than his own life would be forfeit if things continued as they were. The stability of all Gladius hung in the balance.